Saturday, March 21, 2015

Wisdom from Mama: Putting on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

I miss my mama. She has been on my mind lately.

I lost her two and a half years ago, and the ache of this has dulled some with time. I think there are days now, that are full enough, that I don't think of her. Not many, but some. And I still miss her so.

My life is intense and challenging right now, and I doubt at times whether I'm strong enough weather the current storm. I would like to lean on her, to sit with her in the midst of all of this. And I can't anymore. But recently, a new acquaintance, who didn't know her and doesn't know me well, looked at me and said, "You know the words she would say to you. Say them to yourself." I don't run around looking for advice, especially from relative strangers, but this kind of in-my-face message is hard to ignore, and probably should be heeded.

The gift and the curse, at times, of having a strong, opinionated (controlling?) mama, is that many of her words will be forever in my head. The work of growth and maturity is to sift through those words, and choose to hold on to those that are gifts and make sense, and to let the others fade. This is not always an easy task. 

My family loves analogies, and my mother was no exception. One of her favorite analogies about handling motherhood with grace was that of the airplane oxygen mask. She said to me often, and I'm sure to many other mother friends and family members, that "mothers need to put on their own oxygen masks first, and then attend to their children's.They need to take care of themselves first." They announce this with every plane pre- flight safety demonstration, "If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person."

It makes sense that if we pass out ourselves it's not possible to assist someone else. This is is easy to imagine in acute situations such as airplane pressure loss. It is muddier to apply it to everyday life. I remember my mother saying this often, but I don't recall practical recommendations as to how to do this, and she didn't follow her own advice very well.  As so often happens, I was schooled more by her actions than her words. And at 43, I don't know how to put on my own metaphoric oxygen mask first. 

I don't believe that women in this culture are raised to make self care a priority. I believe many of us are in running around making sure that our children,our spouses, our coworkers, our pets, mail carriers and accountants have all their oxygens masks on before considering our own. No wonder we are figuratively gasping for air in this life.

The question, then, is what is my oxygen mask? What is essential for me, for each of us, to thrive? 

I can come up with a pretty good list of what I think I want, so that I can really be okay, and that list includes things like clean floors and laundry washed and put away, and trips to amazing places, and romantic dinners and perfect weather, but boiled down to what's really essential, it becomes relatively simple. These are the things that I need so that I can show up for the rest of my life:

  • Knowing My Children are Safe and Cared for. This is so critical for me to be able to relax. In the early days of parenthood, I wanted to keep them right at my side. Now I just need to know that when they aren't with me, they're being taken care of well. Not that all will be perfect, but that they are safe and well.
  • Rest. Good quality sleep is ideal, but down time while not handling any specific tasks also goes a long way.
  • Alone time. I never thought about whether I was an introvert or an extrovert until I had children. Then I discovered I was an introvert. I LOVE being with people. And I NEED time alone to recharge and process. Often now, when I feel most strained, I recognize that that it is directly related to being full with the day, full with conversation, full with caring for my children, and not having any time to empty. 
  • Exercise. Last spring, when my life began to implode and, of necessity, my working hours increased, I started walking to the post office daily to pick up the company mail. I began to notice that whether I felt good, or, as was often the case, tired, overwhelmed and blue, that 15 minute walk made me feel vastly better.
  • Good Quality Food. Eating regularly is vital for me. And it needs to be decent food. Not fancy. I love to cook, but there's not much time for elaborate meals these days, and the kids don't appreciate them anyway. But good, whole food with plenty of vegetables, adequate protein, and not a lot of grains or sweets really makes a difference in my mood and energy level.
That's really it. Everything else should be second.

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